GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Bill Sefton had a fairly interesting war, as wars go. He parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, landing in the dark just inches from what he thought was a German, but turned out to be a mildly curious cow.
He survived encirclement at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and saw a lot of grim stuff but, best of all, he just plain survived. He married a woman who also was an army officer, came home, built a successful career in public relations in the Grand Rapids area, and fathered and raised 10 children.
World War II was, he believes, the defining moment of his life, as World War I was for his father, and other wars were for generations before them.
Yet every day, we are losing many priceless untold stories of his war and America's other wars, because our veterans are dying. Fewer than 4 million of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive, and they are dying, demographers say, at the rate of a thousand a day.
That can't be helped. But Bill Sefton has a major project under way that's designed to make sure we preserve as many of their memories as possible. He's the marketing director of something called the Michigan Military History Institute, whose mission right now "is to professionally record eyewitness videotaped testimonies of Michigan military service veterans across the spectrum."
Those videotapes will then be available to scholars, teachers, and those who simply want to know more about their nation's history. So far, they have recorded more than 125 oral histories, and are trying to pick up the pace.
"We're not just interested in World War II - we have some from Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, even a couple from Iraq," said Mr. Sefton, who is a young 83. There is, however, a special urgency about the war they called "the big one," because its veterans are the most elderly. He deeply regrets starting it too late to capture the memories of the doughboys of World War I, nearly all of whom are gone.
"How I wish I could have videotaped my dad. I could only talk to him about this after I had been in war." Mr. Sefton's father, a furniture salesman after World War I, ended up going back in the army for World War II.
"Can you imagine how much more we would know if we could somehow have taped the Civil War veterans?" By the end of the month, the Michigan Military History Institute, now piggybacked on a site at www.mmals.org, hopes to have its own web site.
Eventually, it hopes to raise enough money to build a museum honoring the Michigan veterans of all wars. For now, the institute's materials are housed in a giant education building at Grand Rapids Airport, with a hangar for storage.
"That doesnt mean the museum would necessarily have to be in Grand Rapids - we could put it anywhere in the state, depending on funding and demand," Mr. Sefton said. Pony up a few million, in other words, and you could pretty much get to choose whether it is in Traverse City or Muskegon or Monroe.
Right now, they are on the hunt for veterans who have compelling stories and would like them preserved for posterity; their teams are willing to travel across the state to harvest videotaped memories.
If you know a good subject, e-mail Mr. Sefton at email@example.com, or simply write to the Michigan Military History Institute, PO Box 888212, Grand Rapids, Mich. 49588.
By the way, Mr. Sefton doesn't need to videotape his own memories; he published them in book form in 1994: It's My War - I'll Remember It the Way I Want To! (Sunflower University Press.) Thanks to his current project, thousands of veterans who might never pick up a pen may get a chance to do just that.
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